Introduction to Lakes & Ponds

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Learn about the geology, chemistry and ecology of lakes and ponds.

The Earth is made up of many different ecosystems. The ecosystems on Earth can be divided into two groups. Ecosystems on land are called terrestrial. Ecosystems in water are called aquatic. The two main kinds of aquatic ecosystems are freshwater ecosystems and marine ecosystems.

Freshwater ecosystems can be further divided into lentic ecosystems and lotic ecosystems. This backgrounder is about lentic ecosystems.

Did you know?
The study of freshwater ecosystems is called limnology.

Lentic Ecosystems

Lentic ecosystems are in bodies of freshwater that do not flow. The word Lentic comes from the Latin word lentus. This means slow. Lentic ecosystems can be as small as a garden pond or as big as the Great Lakes. 

Did you know?
The lake with the largest area in the world is Lake Michigan-Huron. Geologists define Lake Michigan and Lake Huron as one body of water. This is because they are linked by the Straits of Mackinac.

Scientists define a pond as any water body with an area smaller than two hectares or 20 000 m2. A lake is a water body with an area larger than two hectares.

Great Lakes on the left and a small pond on the right
Satellite image of the Great Lakes on the left and garden pond on the right (Sources: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons and Cheva [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons).

Geology

Lakes can be formed by a number of natural and artificial processes. 

Huge sheets of ice called glaciers once covered almost all of Canada’s land surface. As the glaciers moved they created valleys and depressions in the earth’s surface. These filled with water when the ice melted. 

This is how the Great Lakes, like Lake Michigan-Huron, were formed. Smaller lakes called tarns or potholes were also created this way. Many ponds and wetlands are also found on land that was once covered by glaciers.

In places where the land is low, meandering rivers often create oxbow lakes. This happens through a pattern of erosion and deposition. Erosion happens when rocks and soil are washed off the sides of rivers. Deposition happens when sediments like sand and silt build up in the river. These sediments can block the river. This causes a lake to form.

Oxbow lake
Oxbow lake in northern Alberta (Source: Let’s Talk Science using an image by wonganan via iStockphoto).

Humans create many smaller ponds and lakes. A reservoir is an artificial lake built to store water. Its name comes from the French word réservoir. This means ‘storehouse’. 

One way to make a reservoir is to dam a river. To dam something means to stop the flow of water using a barrier. Another way to make a reservoir is to dig a big hole in the ground and fill it with water. This is called a service reservoir. Farmers often build artificial ponds so animals have drinking water. People also build them as part of the landscaping around their homes. 

Chemistry

The chemistry of a pond or lake depends on the land around it and the rock below it. 

Lakes in mountain valleys often contain very few chemicals created by people. This is because the land the water passes over to get to the lake has few people living in it. These lakes are often low in organic matter as well. Organic matter comes from the breakdown of dead plants and animals. 

Lakes close to farms often have a lot of fertilizer and pesticides. Fertilizers are chemicals that help plants to grow. Pesticides are chemicals that kill weeds and insects that damage crops. 

Lakes close to roads often have chemicals that come from things like motor oil and road salt. Cities can be a major contributor of chemicals to lakes. This is because sewage treatment plants release wastewater from homes and commercial or industrial buildings. 

Fertilizers and sewage can upset the ecosystems of ponds and lakes. Fertilizers provide too much nitrogen and phosphorus to the algae living in ponds and lakes. This causes them to grow quickly and multiply. These algae then dominate the ecosystem, leaving little room for other species. This process is called eutrophication.

Ecology

Lakes and ponds have different ecological communities. This depends on their size, location and chemical characteristics. An ecological community is a group of plants and animals living in the same area.

Small ponds tend to have many phytoplankton and zooplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic, free-floating plants. Zooplankton are microscopic, free-floating animals. The zooplankton feed on the phytoplankton and on each other in a tiny microscopic food web. These small ponds often contain small invertebrates too. These might include insects like beetles or flies, worms, leeches or crustaceans like shrimp or crayfish. 

Microscope view of invertebrates from a pond
A collection of invertebrates from a pond in Ottawa as seen through a microscope (©2011 Chris Hassall. Used with permission).

 

Did you know?
Many insects, such as mayflies and dragonflies, can spend years as aquatic larvae. 

The invertebrates and crustaceans feed on the phytoplankton and zooplankton, as well as other plants. In larger bodies of water, there might be enough plants and animals to provide food for larger animals. These could be fish, amphibians like frogs, toads, newts or salamanders, reptiles like turtles or snakes, and birds. Only the largest lakes contain the largest animals. There needs to be enough food for them! 

Large lakes are important for large plants and animals. But ponds have a larger variety of species. This is because there are many ponds scattered across the landscape. These contain many different habitats that suit lots of different species. 

Pond life (2013) by Dale Calder (5:03 min.).

Some ponds are acidic. They have low pH. Others are alkaline. They have high pH. Some are deep while others are shallow. Some are rich in nutrients while others have few nutrients. 

But lakes usually have a similar in their biological makeup to each other. Smaller ponds and lakes can also act as stepping stones. This means species that need fresh water can move through different habitats in the landscape. This is especially important as species move because of climate change. 

Finally, ponds are small and not connected. So if there is a problem in one pond, like pollution, the damage will be limited. It will be contained in that pond, or possibly nearby ponds. But in a lake where all of the water is connected, damage can spread and affect many plants and animals.

Temporary ponds are ones which can form after a heavy rain. They only last for a short time before the water dries up. These ponds are home to groups of animals with specific characteristics. These characteristics allow them to survive occasional, sometimes unpredictable, times of low precipitation.

Temporary pond
Landscape with temporary pond (Source: membio via iStockphoto).


Some animals, like the water flea Daphnia, have adapted to droughts. Others, like dragonflies, can easily move between water bodies. They can establish themselves in ponds when they become filled with water. Fish don’t usually live in temporary ponds. This is because they can’t survive if the ponds dry out. Also, they also can’t transport themselves to new ponds. This means the food chains in temporary ponds are dominated by insects, like predatory beetles and dragonflies.

 

References

Hoverman, J. T. & Johnson, P. T.J. (2012) Ponds and Lakes: A Journey Through the Life Aquatic. Nature Education Knowledge, 3(6):17.

National Geographic Resource Library. (2011 January 21). Reservoir. 

National Geographic Resource Library. (2011 September 15). Lake.

Stollewerk, A. (2010). The water flea Daphnia - a 'new' model system for ecology and evolution? Journal of Biology, 9(2): 21.DOI: 10.1186/jbiol212